Lower per-game prices and promotional multigame packages haven't quite made up for the 4.2 percent decrease in season ticket revenue for the University of Tennessee men's basketball team so far this year.
The school is about $220,000 behind last year's men's basketball ticket revenue after falling 1,400 season tickets short of last year's sales for Thompson-Boling Arena. It's a drop-off the school anticipated, officials said.
"I'm pleased with where we are. We did have a fair amount of turmoil last year and (first-year head basketball coach Cuonzo) Martin inherited a pretty difficult situation," said Chris Fuller, senior associated athletic director. "So I've actually been pretty pleased when you look at what our schedule has been like. We played (the University of Pittsburgh) at home, and we've actually played some pretty good teams at home, but they're not necessarily household name opponents that would drive ticket sales."
Monday night, UT announced an attendance of 15,239 for the game against UT Chattanooga.
Revenue figures from individual games aren't in yet, but average game attendances are between 17,000 and 18,000 fans, Fuller said. Of that, 13,279 are season tickets. Last year, the team averaged 18,952 tickets per game, ranking fifth in the nation.
The university's low projections for season ticket sales came with even lower expectations for the Vols on the court. Gone from last season's team are popular head coach Bruce Pearl, who was fired after lying to the NCAA during an investigation into violations, and the team's two top players — Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris — who left the program for professional careers.
Going into Monday night's game, the Vols were 6-6, having won five of their seven home games, including the last three.
"Our building is big, and even at the height of our success with coach (Bruce) Pearl, we sold 16,600 season tickets one year, and you almost knew you weren't going to be able to renew all of those because we sold season tickets in the top 10 rows of the (upper level) seats," Fuller said. "I've said this more than one time, but 13,279 (season tickets) means we're selling more season tickets than most buildings have seats."
Thompson-Boling Arena seats 21,678.
UT officials prepared for the drop in season ticket sales by budgeting for a $350,000 loss in revenue, said Bill Myers, chief financial officer for athletics. So far, the team is about $85,000 to $90,000 above that lowered projection, though still below last year's revenues. Most of the sales drop off has been in the upper-level, less-expensive seats, he said.
"With a coaching change, you had to be realistic. You just didn't know," Myers said. "I think I dropped about 1,200 to 1,500 season tickets at different price points and we've been fortunate that fans have exceeded expectations."
To make up for the difference, UT has marketed six-game ticket packages with $15 tickets to some of the season's top opponents, including No. 2 Kentucky, No. 13 Florida and in-state rival Vanderbilt. It sold 860 of those packages — all in upper level sections 325 to 327 — at $90 each, raking in about $77,400. UT is now selling a five-game version of the same package.
The season tickets also include an extra home game, while keeping ticket prices flat, Fuller said.
The athletic department's ticket problem is twofold: the actual revenue it's losing from ticket sales and the perceived dip when many of those customers don't arrive for the game.
The department has "a good idea" of how many fans are actually using the tickets they bought but declined to share those numbers. Fuller said he was concerned about potential inaccuracies from the scanning technology used to count tickets, but insisted the percentage of ticketholders who attend the game is comparable to other venues across the country.
"There's a difference between selling a ticket and somebody coming to a game," Fuller said. "What you see now is people buying the season ticket but still cherry-picking the games. People make spontaneous decisions on 'am I going to go to that one?' particularly when basketball is 19 (home) games."
Conference play will begin Saturday against Florida, which could mean better attendance by fans who want to see familiar foes. UT also is working out ways to get more fans in the seats, including a new print-at-home system that allows season ticketholders to email their tickets to others if they don't plan to attend the game.
Basketball fans have had access to print-at-home tickets for three years, but it's the first time that the transfer has been available, Fuller said.
The athletic department also is examining the results of surveys given to fans of all sports to find out what can be done to enhance their game experience. Officials declined to say what improvements are on the table since no decisions have been made, but any tweaks would be little if any impact on the budget.
"It goes back to making sure we're emphasizing what it is that makes our game experience feel like something people can't live without," Fuller said. "We'll see what we can do from a budget perspective and what we can't, and we'll try to communicate that to our fan base."